Behind the Paw

Inside Natura: The Clean Machine

Last week I finished my last dose of typhoid vaccine (interesting fact: typhoid, if you did not know, is a type of Salmonella.) Not fun, but much less unfun than typhoid itself, I’m sure. Around the same time, I received an email from the World Vets team leader, whose job entails not only running the clinic but making sure the newbies don’t get into trouble abroad, reminding us that no matter how adventurous we might be, the street food in Tanzania must not be consumed. “One word,” she said. “HEPATITIS.”

Most of us live in a country where we take food safety for granted. Yes, there are occasional pockets of problems, but it’s easy to forget that in most of the world the food and water is often highly contaminated with unpleasant, downright dangerous things. Here, you don’t need to think about keeping your mouth shut when you shower or brushing your teeth with bottled water. (I slipped ONE TIME in Africa, and if you remember my post about East African Magic Fairy Colon Dust, I paid dearly for the transgression.)

It’s safe not because we live in a Golden Land Where the Water Flows Cleanly, but because we have massively strict protocols in place to maintain the safety of the food and water supply. We hope that our pet food manufacturers maintain the same standards when it comes to making their food, but the production process is often shrouded behind such a dark and opaque curtain we really have no idea. Well, until Diamond happens, and the FDA releases a scathing rebuke of their safety process post inspection.

I asked someone who knows this industry really well what he thought about the whole Salmonella thing, and he told me that trying to find Salmonella in a finished product is like looking for a needle in a haystack. Even if it’s there, and you are testing the way you should, it’s still hard to find. And that is why preventive measures are so important. Make it right in the first place. The finished product sampling should be just one of many steps in the safety protocol. (more…)

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All tests are not created equal: Inside Natura Part 3 (and a giveaway)

As long as the internet continues to be a depthless repository of the past, an endless attic of antiquity where people can dredge up whatever photo or story they want from previous years and turn it into whatever they wish, Procter and Gamble will struggle with the PETA/Iams cruelty video from a decade ago. Peta continues to drag it out every few months because, well, it gets well meaning people to send them money, despite the fact that it was inaccurate at best, and no longer relevant at worst.

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, I really would love you to read the piece I wrote for Good Dog magazine last year, because it goes into the history of animal testing in pet food and how P&G has changed so very much since that time. I’ll get back to this in a bit, but I wanted to mention it because today I’m talking about animal testing and the Natura tour. The bottom line is, despite what was or is rumored to be, companies can and should aspire to develop foods the way P&G Pet Care does.

Animal Testing: Then and now

Natura, which as you likely know was acquired by P&G two years ago, has always incorporated animal testing into their product development. In order to really get how this all works, you need to understand a few things about animal testing in the pet food industry:

1. Animal feeding trials are considered the ‘gold standard’ in determining whether or not a food will perform in the market. You can formulate a food to AAFCO standards to meet certain minimum requirements, and it’s very likely the dog will grow and be in decent health, but at the end of the day until you put that food in front of a dog or cat, you really don’t know how it will taste, how the flavors will work, how their coat will look, how well they will digest it, that sort of thing.

2. Invasive testing- I’m talking about anything involving a scalpel or even a needle- is no longer considered a necessary part of the process. Procter & Gamble and Hills, both of which I have toured, have an explicit policy  prohibiting invasive testing in animals, and Royal Canin/Mars and Purina, which I have not toured, also have similar statements as part of their animal care policy.

What does that mean? Animals who participate in non invasive trials have only certain types of data they can provide: do they like the food. How is stool quality. How is the pet’s weight. What is happening to urine pH. How is their coat. How are their teeth. The days of euthanizing a dog at a year old to evaluate their joint cartilage are long gone.

Animal Care Post-Acquisition

So this is the question I get over and over from interested consumers who send me off to these tours with a list of concerns to address: How well, exactly, does a test animal live? And the answer is, it depends.

A company can still contract out their research to a third party facility. To be honest, I don’t know what it’s like for those animals. I haven’t been there. I’m sure they meet the minimums of the Animal Welfare Act, but beyond that- well, invite me for a tour and I’ll let you know. All living arrangements are not created equal.

Until the acquisition, Natura tested their food in two situations: at the Natura Health and Nutrition Center in Fremont, Nebraska, an on-site facility where dogs and cats live, and at an outside facility with whom they contracted for longer studies. The dogs in Fremont were mostly rescues, who came to live there after being relinquished by their owners. I met two of them while I was in Fremont, a beautiful pair of smooth collies who were playing fetch with one of the employees as part of their daily activity.

Natura came under a lot of scrutiny after the P&G acquisition, but the across-the-board reaction from the employees, who were just as if not more skeptical than everyone else about how this would shake out, was this: the dogs have benefitted from it. As soon as the acquisition happened, the animal testing process was subject to the P&G Animal Care policy, arguably the best in the industry. Under this policy, animal research can take place at only one of three places:

  • the in house facility itself, either the Natura Health and Nutrition Center or the Iams Pet Health and Nutrition Center in Lewisburg, Ohio;
  • in people’s homes as part of a clinical research study- owned pets like yours and mine- about 70% of the research animals at P&G fall into this category;
  • places where pets live as part of their job, such as Canine Companions for Independence.

So the outside facility was, well, out. They also stopped bringing in rescue animals for testing, which may surprise you, but bear with me. It’s a good thing. Here’s the deal:

An animal who has been used to living in a home environment may not adjust right away, or at all, to a group living environment. You can provide group housing and enrichment and exercise, but at the end of the day it’s still a big adjustment. Under P&G’s policy, which I’ve written about previously, dogs are acquired as puppies from breeders and intensely socialized fron day one to live in a group setting, with the eventual goal of transitioning to a home at about 6 years of age. This program, developed by a behaviorist with the emotional well-being of the dogs in mind, results in happier dogs with less stress, which means better results for all involved.

The folks in charge of the facility at Natura have recently started working with a new group of dogs who had just completed training in Ohio, and they all admitted with some surprise that this has been a really good change for them. That’s right, things got better post-acquisition.

Life as a Natura Test Dog

So I don’t really know what life is like for a test dog at some companies, but for the 35 dogs at Natura it’s this: I get up, I eat, I hang out with my kennel mate, I get group play time outside, I get individual time with a person, I get trained about how to live in a house with vacuum cleaners and doorbells, I get regular veterinary care, someone collects my poop when I’m not looking, and then I get adopted. And that is pretty much it.

The Fremont Health and Nutrition Center is undergoing renovations this year, to make the kennels even more dog-friendly and provide the space for a full-time on-site veterinarian. The kennels are specifically designed to provide hiding areas, places to look out and see what’s going on, vertical space, and easy outside access. They are also improving the group housing facility for the 24 cats to incorporate outside access for the felines. When this is completed, they also plan to get accreditation from the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory and Animal Care, a voluntary certification that goes way above and beyond the minimum standards put forth by the Animal Welfare Act. Most facilities don’t do this. It’s a very good thing.

We all want what is best for our pets, and at the same time we (hopefully) want to know that the products we choose are developed in an ethical and humane manner. I’m very glad to see companies being proactive in their animal welfare protocols and continuing to improve year after year; and happy to give credit where credit is due to a company who is doing things the right way. Even a big company.

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So there you go. Still have a post on the manufacturing plant to write- I was waiting on the picture with the giant probe, and it’s totally worth the wait, by the by.

I’m happy to feed Natura. If you would like to try it, I have a coupon for one bag of any size dog or cat food from the Natura line (Evo, Innova, California Natural, Karma, and HealthWise) that I will be giving away this week- you know the drill! Details are below.


a Rafflecopter giveaway

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Inside Natura: Meet your feed

My friend Susi, who has a habit of asking very interesting and pointed questions, posed a great one to the people at Natura on our tour last week: What’s the difference between Natura foods and Eukanuba? Now, the guy answering the question works for Procter and Gamble, which owns both brands, and they position themselves similarly in terms of the type of person who might buy them, so I was very intrigued to see how he would answer it.

We were not wearing our Blue Man costumes at the time.

He gave a sports analogy. On one side of the coin, you have the athlete who assembles his morning protein shake with the specific components that he knows will give him optimum results: whey powder, DHA supplements, this or that protein optimized concoction. Maybe he uses a BlendTec. He wins lots of races. On the other side, you have the person who assembles her morning smoothie with the whole foods that she knows has the best assortment of nutrients that she needs: bananas for potassium, peanut butter for protein, that sort of thing. She throws it in the VitaMix and off she goes. She wins lots of races. So is one better than the other? Or is it in the eye of the beholder?

Pet food has a lot in common with religion, doesn’t it? People take it very personally. They get very passionate about their choices. And at the end of the day, they look to the approach that makes the most sense to them and their personal philosophy to get them to where they want to be. So in that regard, while both Eukanuba and Natura create formulations based on the scientific literature, use feeding trials to assure its efficacy, and can say with confidence that they provide excellent nutrition, they just have a different approach to reaching that goal. So it all comes down to what matters to you. I happen to be one of the ones drinking spinach and berry smoothies in the morning, so that’s my bend, though I have nothing against the protein powder guys.

The rationale behind the choices

My choices have changed over the years as my pets’ needs have changed. When Emmett had lymphoma, for example, he was on Evo because there was some evidence a high protein, low carbohydrate diet can help with certain types of neoplasias. Now, with a senior pet and an active pet who are both in generally good health, I want a good middle- of- the- road nutrient profile that will serve both of their needs. I like reading ingredient lists. Companies know there are lots of people out there like me who are attracted to ingredients that mimic what we might use were we to cook for our pets ourselves, and they market to that.

Ironically, many of their formulations are still based on ideas proven by research done by bigger pet food companies, but some still manage to imply that they are “better” for having come up with a sexier ingredient list although the carbs in a more “sciencey” brand may have been chosen because of their impact on long term glucose regulation, for example. Without having a nutritionist in front of you to ask why they choose what they do, it can be hard to know why a food uses peas instead of brown rice as a carbohydrate source. Is it marketing or science? Truthfully, hopefully, probably a little of both.

I DID in fact have a nutritionist in front of me at Natura, her name is Kari, and I like her very much. She’s a smart cookie and very passionate about her job. I hope she will agree to talk to me more about her job, because it’s a vital one. At Natura, she describes her approach as such: they go through the literature to find the latest information about what’s going on in nutrition research. And based on that knowledge, her job is to find the whole food that best fulfills that need, because that is part of their philosophy. That is why you will see “menhaden fish” as an ingredient, to give you an example, because of its optimum fatty acid profiles. That sort of thing.

I thought that little picture you always see associated with Natura of bins of carrots and apples going into a conveyor was a marketing thing. That maybe the reality was a little more processed. Frozen looking or something, I don’t know.

But it’s really there. To the left, bags and bags of produce and stacks of Land o Lakes cottage cheese like you would see in a restaurant’s cooler. They really do that, and that is pretty cool. Those ingredients are tested and inspected before going into the food- in this case, they’re about to go through a metal detector to check for contaminants- and then they enter an incredibly tight, clean process to turn them into Innova or Karma or whatever they are making that day.

Speaking of ingredients, Natura rolled out something that is entirely unique in the pet food industry and represents a level of transparency that to this point has never existed. Everyone wants to know where the ingredients were sourced in their pet food, right? Well, now you can. See Beyond the Bag is a site that allows you to find out where each and every ingredient was sourced from. The apples in this picture come from Washington. The turkey, from Wisconsin and Minnesota. It’s an impressive tool.

Now, you can have the best ingredients in the world and that doesn’t matter if you turn them over to a place that’s a dump for the manufacturing process, one of the concerns I’ve always had about foods. You just don’t know what the conditions are. At Natura, they decided to bring it in house a decade ago by building their own plant from the ground up. It’s solid concrete, about the least pest-friendly sort of environment you can have. I’ll get more into that in another post- the three other topics I want to cover are quality control in manufacturing, feeding trials, and the P&G acquisition. For for now, I leave you with this:

Science is awesome and don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Natura was the first company to prove with a published study that a high protein diet does not negatively impact organ function in healthy dogs. This research was the basis for Evo and all the other high protein kibbles that came after them. Boo yah. I took a picture with the abstract because I’m a nerd, and that is why you all keep reading.

Whole food choices based on science. Sexy.

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Inside Natura: Part One

What makes a pet food good?

How do you pick a pet food? I’m genuinely curious. The number of choices out there is dizzying, isn’t it?

It’s one of the biggest challenges of being a pet owner, standing in those aisles, peeking up and down at the bags and trying to figure out based on the information we have at hand what is going to be the best choices for our pets.

But where do we get our information? From our own research. From the guy in the pet store. From the vet. From the company who makes the food. We worry about biases and how much we can trust those sources.

I have said many times that there is no one best pet food, and I mean that. What matters is what is best for your pet, and that may not be the same as what is best for mine. And despite how well we may be armed with some information, there are going to be behind the scenes bits of information that we just don’t have access to.

There’s the label, and then there’s everything else

Owners are getting awfully good at reading pet labels, which is a good thing. That is a vital place to start and a good gauge  in assessing whether a food might be a good fit for our pet. Everyone wants to know that the ingredients in that bag are ones they feel provide good nutrition.

This is a generic pet food label- brand unknown

But there is so much more that goes on that we may or may not be privy to. As the Diamond debacle has shown us, a company can provide the best ingredients out there, but if they’ve sourced their production to a factory who’s falling asleep on the job, all their hard work is down the drain in a big messy recall nightmare. If a company is not proactive in tracing problems with their food or is not responsive to the veterinary community who is often the first group of people to realize there is a nutrition issue, it doesn’t matter how great the label looks or the ingredients sound.

These are things that matter to me:

1. Quality ingredients selected based on knowledge and scientific rationale as to their health benefits as opposed to simply things that sound trendy.

2. Expert Formulators: Who’s coming up with the recipes? What training do they have? Are they making decisions and updates based on the newest findings in the literature?

3. Good manufacturing practice, including high level quality control and an ability to trace problems quickly.

4. Results: Are new diets being fed to dogs and cats before going to market or are they just based on formulations? Are those feeding trials being carried out in an ethical manner that exceeds the bare minimums of the Animal Welfare Act?

5. Conscience. Do you have a corporate philosophy that states unequivocally that the health of the pet is your main purpose in making this food? How does this translate into practice?

Some of these things, clearly, are easier to figure out than others. I’m constantly being reminded of how little access consumers have to the pet food manufacturing process, which is why I am so thrilled that some companies are really working on this concept of transparency and sharing the process with the consumer in ways they never have before.

A preview of the Natura tour

I’ve been hinting at wanting to see the Natura plant for over a year now, as I’ve used several of their brands on a regular basis. Natura makes Innova, Evo, California Natural, Karma, HealthWise, and Mother Nature. I felt very fortunate to have been invited to their first blogger tour this week and I was really, really hoping I wouldn’t be disappointed by what I saw.

I have lots to share over several posts, but I did go through the tour with those five personal benchmarks in mind. In summary:

I was so happy with the tour, the people at Natura, and what they are doing there. I’ve always been pleased with the results I’ve had with the products (I rotate, and I’ll talk about that too), and this process has only made me more confident in using it and recommending it to others.

I watched people who had been with the company for years get a little choked up as they talked about their fears after the acquisition by Procter and Gamble, and what that has meant for them; stood next to the bins of carrots and apples as they headed into the first of many quality control steps; examined vats of meat and asked questions that I really thought might get me tossed out, but didn’t. Nothing was off limits to ask.

So stay tuned for the rest of the story and answers to some of the questions I was sent by you. I think you’ll be pleased.

Disclosure: Natura covered my expenses in order to come tour the plant. They have not provided me product or other compensation, and gave me no guidelines as to what I could and couldn’t write about.

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